The 18 Closely Bonding Practices
The sixth point is the eighteen closely bonding practices for mind training – in other words, for cleansing and training our attitudes. “Close bond” in Sanskrit is “samaya,” or “dam-tshig” in Tibetan, which means something that will bond us closely to the practice.
Both this list of eighteen practices and the twenty-two that constitute the seventh point are absolutely fantastic; they’re similar to the bodhisattva vows. I remember when I learned these practices and the bodhisattva vows, I was so thankful that there were guidelines of how to behave and handle life – especially how to deal with other people, without making a complete idiot or a donkey out of myself. Because, as I’ve said before, when I came to Dharma, I was an absolute cripple in terms of social skills and dealing with others. I’m so grateful for learning these practices, as they are really very precious.
The first closely bonding practice is:
Always train in the three general points.
These “three general points” are the first three of the eighteen practices. The first of these is:
Don’t contradict what I’ve promised.
Contradicting what we’ve promised refers to when we have promised to do this kind of Mahayana training of our attitudes. Basically, we don’t contradict it by thinking that we can ignore other types of practices, like avoiding the ten destructive actions, or not doing anything physical – like prostrations, food offerings, mandala offerings, and so on. We don’t put down the other practices just because we think, “Oh, I’m doing this Mahayana training and so I just have to work on overcoming self-cherishing and it’s OK to ignore all these other things.” Because actually, when we ignore or trivialize the other practices, that’s also a bit of self-cherishing, “Well, I don’t feel like doing them. I’m too tired to make prostrations.”
The second one of these three general points is:
Don’t get into outrageous behavior.
Acting outrageously is when we think, “I can change all adverse circumstances into positive ones, so this means that I can do all sorts of harmful things like cut down trees.” This example is often given in the commentaries, “...cut down trees where nagas live, and pollute naga places, and so on, because I’m impervious to harm.” Nagas are a type of half-snake, half-human life form. They exist in the animal realm and have many functions, but one of the main ones is to protect the environment. For example, when we pollute the environment, all the harm that results from pollution is seen as being caused by the nagas. So, we don’t want to offend them. It’s similar within the Native American Indian tradition, we do not want to offend the nature spirits. The main lesson here is not to pollute the environment and think, “I can transform these harmful situations. I can live with the air pollution,” and so on.
This second point is also about not being a hypocrite in the practice: we’re nice on the outside, but when we’re home, for example, we hunt mosquitoes and take joy in killing them. We go on a safari with a pith helmet and the whole British colonial outfit to hunt the mosquito in our room. I find this a helpful image when I find myself acting like a hypocrite with flies or mosquitoes – thinking how ridiculous it is to do so.
The third of the three general points is:
Don’t fall to partiality.
The example that is given for this third point is how we usually don’t like it when somebody that we feel is our inferior insults us or says something negative. However, when somebody who is our superior says something similar, we’re more willing to accept it. This example reflects that we’re only able to train ourselves, or deal with things, with only some people, and not with everybody. I don’t think this point refers exclusively to the example given in the commentaries. The practice of avoiding partiality also refers to not liking enemies and only liking our relatives and friends. In other words, not liking people that are annoying to us, but only liking the people who are nice to us. That’s being partial.
Another interpretation of this line is connected to the feeling that the Vinaya (the lay and monastic vows) and tantra are mutually exclusive. Again, that’s being partial.
The fourth practice is:
Transform my intentions but remain normal.
This is a very important piece of advice: our training needs to be internal. We don’t need to make a big show of it externally. For instance, I know people who become what we call “Dharma freaks” that go around wearing Tibetan clothes, always carrying a rosary in their hands, wearing about ten dirty red strings around their necks, and things like that. Everybody just thinks that they’re really weird, or that they are fanatics or belong to some sort of cult. This kind of behavior not only makes people not take us seriously, but it also gives a bad name to Buddhism. Externally, it’s important to remain normal and focus more on changing our attitudes and self-cherishing on the inside.
Similarly, we don’t make a big show of our compassion and concern for others, such as crying in public and so on. I mean, sometimes His Holiness is moved to tears when he teaches, but he doesn’t make a big show of it. To see His Holiness crying when teaching is actually very inspiring, but for most of us this would not be the case. If somebody is hurt and we’re really quite moved by it and then carry on with a big emotional show, “Oh, that’s so horrible,” that doesn’t help the other person at all. It just makes them feel very uncomfortable, “Why are you more upset than I am?” Instead of such reactions, we should just try to help them. We don’t indulge in our emotions by making a big show of them, even if we feel them inside.
The fifth practice is:
Don’t speak of (others’) deficient or deteriorated sides.
Basically, this point means that we should not make fun of other people. The example that is typically used is calling a fat person “fat”, or a blind person “blind”, these types of things. We should not say things that are going to hurt other people’s feelings. We also don’t swear or yell, or make fun and embarrass other people, calling them stupid if they are not very intelligent. Even if we think it’s a joke and we think that the other person knows that it’s a joke, it still hurts. If, for example, the other person is a bodhisattva and we think, “Well, I can say anything to them, because they’re not going to get hurt by it,” still don’t say it. We should never think, “You’re my good friend, so I can treat you like garbage, because you can take it.”
The point, To speak about others’ deficient sides, reminds me of how Serkong Rinpoche always called me “Dummy” whenever I did something stupid. He called me that in front of a lot of people as well, but I gave him permission to do that. I told him, “Please do that, help me overcome being an idiot.” His Holiness does something similar. He points out others’ faults, but often turns it into a joke, such as laughing at all the people who have fallen asleep during the teachings. If it’s done in a light-hearted way, it’s not as hurtful. In fact, sometimes it can be effective, but we have to be very careful. We have to be quite skilled to be able to get people to laugh at themselves. For instance, at the end of a teaching say, “I hope you’ve had a refreshing sleep and good dreams,” this type of joke.
The sixth practice is:
Don’t think anything about others’ (faults).
This means not to criticize or make judgments about other people, always looking for others’ faults and constantly criticizing what they do. In fact, if we see faults, they may be our own projections. We don’t know whether what we see reflects the way the person usually acts, and we certainly don’t know the mind-streams of others.
So how do we really know?
The seventh practice is:
Cleanse myself first of whichever disturbing emotion is my greatest.
We usually know what our biggest problem is. Although we may have more than one, we often know what is the main thing that we need to work on. For example, if it’s attachment and desire, then even if we don’t have any deep understanding of voidness that we can apply, we can use so-called temporary remedies to help us along the way. We can think of impermanence, the ugliness of the human body, our precious human life, or these sorts of things. For anger, we can use love and compassion. Whatever it is, we try to work on our biggest problem, or the biggest area first.
The eighth practice is:
Rid myself of hopes for fruits.
Here this point means that we shouldn’t have any hopes or expectations of getting anything in return for helping others – thinking that they’re going to help us in return, they’re going to be grateful, they’re going to thank us, or anything like that. Further, we don’t think that we’re going to become famous as a bodhisattva or that we’re doing good deeds as an investment because we want to get a better rebirth and not an unfortunate one. Further, we don’t do things because we want others to love us or go on a power trip thinking that they’re going to be dependent on us and need us. We simply help others to help them.
Also, when it comes to our daily practice, we shouldn’t expect any results. As is often said, if we don’t have any hopes or expectations, we won’t have any disappointments. Don’t expect dramatic results, because the nature of samsara is that life goes up and down. Until we become an arhat – a liberated being – some days it’s going to go well, some days it’s not. Some days we feel like practicing, and some days we don’t. Some days we’re in a good mood, some days we’re not. Remember, what do we expect from samsara?
In general, if we’re in a happy mood all the time, or a great deal of the time, that shows we’re truly making progress. Even if we’re in a terrible mood, if we’re able to transform it very quickly and not get lost in it, thinking, “I don’t feel like practicing,” but if instead we can transform our negative emotions and practice anyway, that’s another sign of progress. Basically, we can’t have the expectation that every day is going to get better and better. It’s not.
The ninth practice is:
Give up poisoned food.
This means that even if we’re involved in doing something very constructive, or having constructive thoughts and so on, if we sense that it’s mixed with self-cherishing, we should drop it, correct the motivation and then start fresh – like rebooting a computer. Further, as much as possible we should not let things go on and on with a selfish motivation. Obviously, we don’t get rid of self-cherishing completely until we’re a liberated being, but we do the best we can. His Holiness always says that our positive actions are often mixed with some self-cherishing or with some grasping for true existence of a “me.” But we should try not to have self-cherishing be the dominant motivation behind our actions. At the least, we need to be more aware of our motivation and minimize this tendency for self-cherishing. And don’t pretend to be such a great bodhisattva when you’re not, feeling, “My motivation is so pure.”
The tenth practice is:
Don’t rely (on my disturbing thoughts) as my excellent mainstay.
“Mainstay” also means a main highway, a main thoroughfare. This point means not to give the major superhighway in our minds to our disturbing thoughts and disturbing emotions but to give the major highway or the major thing that we rely on in our minds and hearts to positive, constructive thoughts and emotions, and to cherishing others. It’s always said, “Don’t be kind to the disturbing emotions.” Shantideva said this as well, “Why do I make such a comfortable home for the disturbing emotions in my mind and heart? Instead of being kind to them, be kind to sentient beings.” As soon as anger, attachment, clinging, desire and so on arise, don’t play around with them; get rid of them immediately. If we take it easy and play around with disturbing emotions, giving them space to occupy a major part of our minds, then they grow very strong and take over. As a result, we lose our mindfulness and self-control.
The eleventh practice is:
Don’t fly off into bad play.
This means if somebody insults us, or says something really nasty to us, we don’t search for even worse things to say back, as that’s getting into bad play: “Let’s see who can hurt the other person more?” If, though, we can’t keep quiet and need to vent our anger, we should try to say something mild, not something worse. For instance, we can say, “That really hurt me,” as opposed to insulting the person back.
The twelfth practice is:
Don’t lie in ambush.
In other words, we don’t wait for a time when the other person is weak so that we can retaliate and do something to hurt them. When we keep a grudge and look for an opportunity to get even, that’s “lying in ambush,” waiting to attack.
The thirteenth practice is:
Don’t put (someone) down about a sensitive point.
This point is similar to what we say in English, “Don’t hit below the belt.” In other words, pointing out somebody’s faults or weak points in a crowd is like hurting them in the place where they’re most vulnerable and sensitive. In a sense, to put someone down about their sensitive point means to try, in a sense, to gain control over them. When the other person is particularly vulnerable and we need to point out something that’s difficult, we should use skillful means.
One example is from when I was translating one of the first times for His Holiness in Bodhgaya; it was actually the text Bodhicharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. Serkong Rinpoche had been up in Nepal for some months and had just came back to India and was there at the teaching. I was pretty nervous at this prospect of translating for His Holiness and, also, I was having difficulties about certain things that were going on in my life at that time. When I visited Serkong Rinpoche the day before the teaching, he picked up Shantideva’s text and pointed out three different words, asking me if I knew what those words meant. I didn’t have a very clear idea, so he explained them very well to me. Those were the exact three points that I was having difficulty with in those days. Instead of going directly to my weak areas, when I was in a vulnerable emotional situation, he very skillfully took a gentler approach.
This kind of method is actually very important if we are an older person dealing with a younger one, or in any type of situation in which there’s an imbalance of power, experience, age and so on. We should not take advantage because we’re the older or the more experienced one; we should never try to manipulate the younger, more inexperienced person.
Another interpretation of this line is to not use black magic, or any such methods, when the other person is vulnerable – to either harm or get them under our control. We may not have black magical means, but when someone is very susceptible to becoming dependent, we should not go on a power trip over them or try to take advantage of a sensitive aspect of their personalities.
Then the fourteenth practice is:
Don’t shift the load of a dzo to an ox.
A dzo is a cross between a yak and a cow, or a bull; it’s a very strong animal. An ox, however, is not as strong as a dzo. This point is similar to an expression we have in English, “to pass the buck,” to put something onto the other person, just because we don’t want to do it. This is especially the case when it’s something that we’re perfectly capable of doing, and which would be very difficult for the other person to do. Basically, we do not send other people to do our dirty work for us. We also don’t blame others for our wrong actions, as that’s also putting the load of a dzo onto the ox, blaming others for our mistakes.
The fifteenth practice is:
Don’t make a race.
This means don’t run to get the best seat at a Dharma teaching, a theater, or whatever. Don’t push to get the best portion of food, worrying that others will take the piece that we like, or worrying that the food is going to run out, or that type of thing. Even in our thoughts we’re making a race for things. It’s better to accept the worst and come out last. But if we do this practice, it’s important not to do it pretentiously, not to make a show, “Oh, you take the good portion, I’ll take the worst. That’s OK, I don’t mind” – this type of behavior. Also, if we’re sharing something with others like, for example, a bathroom, we try not to always get it for ourselves first or take our time and spend much longer than we need. I mean, unless it’s an emergency, obviously it’s OK to go first.
The sixteenth practice is:
Don’t reverse the amulet.
This point uses as an image for our mind training practice an amulet, which is a kind of talisman, to protect us against harmful spirits. Since we’re doing this training to get rid of our self-cherishing attitude, we should not do the opposite and use it to build up our self-importance. Such type of action is like turning the amulet backwards or reversing the amulet. The example in the commentaries is we do this mind training so that we’re not harmed by spirits. Another example of using the training backwards would be practicing bodhichitta so that others will like us or to get many friends.
The seventeenth practice is:
Don’t make a god fall to a demon.
In general, this is mixing our mind training practice with self-cherishing. In other words, as a result of our Dharma practice, we develop pride, arrogance, self-righteousness, or a holier-than-thou type of attitude. Or we meditate in a cave so that everybody will think that we’re such a high practitioner – wanting them to show us respect and make offerings to us. It’s also similar to studying Dharma and writing a book in order to make money or doing a three-year retreat to get the “lama” title, disciples and so on. It’s always best to regard ourselves as the lowest, to be humble, as it says in the Eight Verses of Mind Training. In its commentaries, we find a quote from a great practitioner of this training, “When I read the Dharma texts, I see all the faults described as my own and all the good qualities as others’.”
The eighteenth practice, the final one in this list is:
Don’t seek suffering (for others) as an adjunct for (my) happiness.
Adjunct here means help. It’s as if we’re wishing for our parents to die so that we’ll inherit their money or competing with somebody hoping that they’ll trip and fall so that we’ll be on top. “I’ll get ahead by putting you down and throwing something in your way to stop you.”
We’ve now covered the sixth point, the eighteen close bonding practices. As we can see, these practices are similar to the bodhisattva vows. Although they’re not taken as vows, they can help us to skillfully deal with others and avoid problems.